Above: an easter bonnet competition at Sealed Motor Construction, Bridgwater, c.1973.
For years when I told people I was from Somerset their response would usually be something like “Oh, how lovely!” at which I would laugh inwardly, and grimly.
I knew that they were picturing a summer day at Minehead, the roaring log fire of a country inn, or perhaps Bath, or maybe even confusing it with Devon at its most lush and rolling. They were thinking about the cover art on Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles.
What they did not have in mind was the industrial estate on Wylds Road in Bridgwater where Grandpa vacuum-formed plastic cups for vending machines and Mum packed aerosol solvents. They weren’t picturing the heat and filth of the factory where my Dad worked nights making pistons, or the one before that where he waded in chemicals, or the one before that where he (and Mum, and her parents) put together waterproof motors, or… You get the idea. They didn’t have in mind the thundering lorries or freight trains and the infrastructure that served them.
Bridgwater was shaped by industry even if many of the factories have gone, and there are other places like it up and down the West Country. What I want to do here, for my own learning, is highlight some of those industrial towns and villages and the sheer, mad range of work undertaken in a part of the world more usually associated with tourism and agriculture. It’s nothing like complete and I’ll no doubt come back to this subject when I’ve done more reading.
1. At Bathampton outside Bath, for example, William Harbutt’s factory produced Plasticine, the non-drying modelling clay, from 1900 until 1983. This might sound like a bit of a joke but it was a substantial industrial operation. You can see some (small, watermarked) photos of the factory at Bath in Time.
2. Street, Somerset, was home to shoe manufacturing firm C &J. Clark, founded in 1825, and was the site of the original factory. Clark’s eventually had factories all across the West Country in places such as Radstock, Bridgwater and Minehead. The last, at Ilminster, closed in 2005. Clark’s head office is still in Street but the original Clark’s factory buildings have been absorbed into Clark’s Village, a rather characterless discount shopping centre with upmarket pretensions.
3. The Wansbrough paper mill at Watchet, Somerset, was a major local employer for several hundred years, from the middle of the 17th century. It closed in 2015.
Yeovil, also in Somerset, has been a centre for the manufacture of helicopters since the end of World War II. What was Westland Helicopters is now owned by an Italian firm, Leonardo, whose almost 3,000 staff build military and civilian models including a licenced version of the Apache Longbow for the British Army. Growing up I remember that the local news was always either ‘Westland in trouble’ or ‘Westland to expand’; a helicopter came and landed on the school playground one day but I’m not sure if they were recruiting for Westland, the armed forces, or both. An oral history project recording the experiences of workers at Westland is online here.
5. Centrax has been making industrial gas turbines and jet engine components since the 1940s and relocated to Newton Abbot in Devon in the 1950s. Today it employs around 700 people. From 1964 to 1979 one of the local football teams was called the Newton Abbot Dynamos and played at the Centrax Ground. (Very Soviet.)
6. Cornwall is of course known for mining and its landscape is marked by the debris, architecture and scars of this once great industry. At Geevor near Land’s End you can visit the remains of a tin mine that only ceased operating in 1990 and which is preserved much as it looked in those final days with lockers unemptied and curling calendars on the office walls. At Par outside St Austell a large and fully operational China clay works sits surrounded by fences on the seafront – a gritty two-finger salute to the tourist industry. China clay has been mined and processed in Cornwall since the 18th century and still employs around 2,000 people today.
7. Bridgwater in Somerset and Tiverton in Devon shared a notable brewery in Starkey, Knight & Ford. It was taken over by Whitbread in 1962 and operations were concentrated in Tiverton which became Whitbread’s western outpost until operations ceased there in 1982. Devenish, another big West Country brewer, had breweries in Dorset (Weymouth) and Cornwall (Redruth), with the latter still working as a brewery into the 21st century. There are still substantial historic working breweries at, for example, St Austell in Cornwall, Bridport in Dorset (Palmer’s) and Devizes in Wiltshire (Wadworth).
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For starters, then, that’s a vast range of industry, from toys to war machines, and I haven’t even touched on bricks, dairy products, seafood processing, furniture manufacturing, chewing gum, chocolate bars, semiconductors…